cartoon by hugh macleod
OK, so now what’s holding you back? You know that nothing you do makes any enduring difference, to the state of the world or civilization, or in fact to anything, since there is no ‘you’ to make any difference, nor any ‘thing’ to make different. So on multiple levels, you are absolutely free to do whatever you want. And now the best you can do is… as little as possible? Basically just avoid stress? People would kill to have the opportunity you now have, and you’re just whittling it away, wasting it.
Who are you talking to? If it’s that Dave-character that you think you inhabit, it can’t hear you. It’s just an appearance, a part of everything-that-is, nothing wondrously appearing as everything. As for you, you’re just a self. You’re not even an appearance, you’re an illusion. A concoction, a figment of that character’s patterning brain. Basically, you aren’t. So save your breath.
Fine, have it your way. What’s holding it back then? Why is it wasting its life, its privileged opportunity, doing essentially nothing of value?
It has no freedom to do anything. It is going to do what it is going to do, and neither it (the amazing appearance), nor ‘we’ (the astonishing conjured-up illusion), have any say in it whatsoever. So you can get off your high horse.
Hmm. Let me rephrase then: What might motivate this creature to do something that would, in fact, help it, and help us in the process? What might cause it to spend more time in the forest, for example, which is right there a minute’s walk from here, for god’s sake? What might cause it to do things — like travel to beautiful places and different cultures, like having deliberate conversations with really bright people, like getting help to deal with its phobias — that might possibly disrupt the scared, lost, bewildered creature’s default settings and get the idiot over itself?
You still don’t get it. That creature isn’t listening to you; it can’t hear you. We actually don’t exist. Instead of trying to influence the creature, why don’t you try to appreciate why it is not doing any of these things. As much as it likes looking at it, and the idea of spending time in it, it’s uncomfortable in the forest, especially now with the swarming wasps. Travel is hugely stressful these days, arguably not worth the effort and cost. Most conversations with supposedly bright people turn out to be so disappointing! And you know the lame things any counsellor is going to suggest to deal with phobias — “embrace your fears”, etc. When your instincts tell you that anything you try to do to deal with a situation won’t, on balance, be worth the effort and stress, why should you ignore those instincts? ‘Scared, lost, bewildered’ is a perfectly understandable way to be in this crazy world.
Those are lousy excuses. ‘Scared, lost, bewildered’ may be understandable, but it’s not healthy, not natural, and a pretty miserable way to be.
Expecting any creature to behave in a natural way in an unnatural, omnipresent, infantilizing and oppressive culture is absurd. Everything in this human culture is unnatural, disconnected. Of course it’s not healthy, but there’s nothing the creature can do about that, other than its feeble attempts at eating well and exercising, which it does pretty well in the circumstances. And the creature doesn’t seem so miserable to me. Certainly less miserable than it’s been most of its apparent life.
So you think its fine that this creature, our creature, just sits around most days, reading, writing, playing, doing some volunteer stuff, and essentially doing nothing helpful as this whole world goes to shit?
Well, yeah, actually I do think it’s fine. It’s not like it’s real, this creature, or this world. They’re just appearances. The creature does what it must, it does its best, it does what’s easy and when possible it does what’s fun. It’s not like it has any choice in the matter.
It’s barely alive, it’s so disconnected from everything and everyone else. It’s afraid to feel, for pity’s sake. What kind of life is that? It’s only when it’s in love that it really dares to feel the rush of fully being, here, now. Not taking the risk of failing, of being hurt, being vulnerable, letting go of control — means missing out on all the potential joys of accomplishment, new discoveries, intimate connection, new capacities. There are no highs without the risk of lows, and there will sometimes be lows in any case. No hiding from that.
You’re projecting. Everything you just alleged to be the case for that creature is actually only true for you, self-ish one. I think you’re upset because the ‘reality’ it’s living now, cloistered as that may be from our perspective, essentially denies your existence, our existence, our purpose and meaning and significance. You resent being snubbed, ignored. Let me say it again: It’s doing the only thing it can do in the circumstances. We don’t matter. It’s not listening to us. Since we are actually an illusion, an abstraction conjured up in its brain, it can’t listen to us. The emotions of love, fear, joy that you arrogate to that character are not its, and actually they aren’t yours either. They are things that arise, apparently, and they belong to no one. There is feeling, there are thoughts, there are things happening, but they are all appearances, for no reason, and they belong to no one, especially not to you, my illusory mate. It’s just an amazing, wondrous, show, out of space and time, and there’s no script to follow, nothing that makes any difference, nothing that can be done.
Sounds perfectly awful. If there’s no joy, no falling in love, no adversity to overcome, no learning, no progress, it’s just all flat, empty, passionless, pointless…
Now you’re getting it. Except there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s endlessly wondrous. It’s everything for god’s sake! Appearing out of nothing! Limitless possibilities, eternally, for no one, in no one’s control. And this wondrous everything can still be seen, even though there’s no one to see it. That’s amazing. There is joy and falling in love and learning, just not for any one. It’s everything-endless-joy and everything-endlessly-falling in love, unconditionally, and everything-being- endlessly-rediscovered, re-seen, as if for the first time. Everything is endlessly new. How could anything personal ever even begin to compare to that?
Joy, discovery, love — loving someone so much you would be willing to die for them — these are things that have to be personal, have to be limited, finite, fleeting even, for them to have any value, any meaning, any power, for them to be really felt, cherished. This everything-emotion you describe is just dead, empty. Impossible.
There you go projecting again. It’s absolutely true that for you this eternal wonder at everything is impossible. That’s why you’re trying to hold on so tightly to the personal, temporary emotions. They’re all you can have, at best, all you can hope for. But there’s something much more that you can never see.
How do you know all this? What you say makes no sense, so what makes you so sure? You’re just another part of this Dave-character’s self, with no more access to knowledge than I have.
It’s not something that can be known. It can be described, but that’s not the same thing. It’s intuitive, it’s a remembering, a remembering of before there was a ‘we’, a self, or anything separate. Somehow, it’s obvious. It’s obvious that none of the creatures in this world need a ‘self’, that they have evolved to live, apparently, perfectly well without selves — there is no time (or need) for selves to complicate the simple process of doing the only thing that could be done, apparently, given the creature’s inherent embodied and enculturated conditioning. It’s obvious that all the struggle and misery and suffering that selves are prone to are not what a million years of staggeringly-complex evolution would arrive at, or even tolerate. It’s obvious that there is something wrong with the perception that the miserable, conflicted self would in any way come to control or even influence the brilliantly-evolved character. It’s obvious that the self is just a very complicated and compelling but hopelessly flawed, recursive, model, an unfortunate invention, a spandrel of nature’s experiment with large brains. We know this in our bones, despite all the world’s selves desperately trying to tell us it can’t be. Everything exists without the need for a self to witness it.
And I should take this on faith, just because you choose, like one of those born-again nutcakes, to believe it’s true, despite all the evidence to the contrary?
Well, let’s look at the “evidence”:
- Astrophysicists and quantum theorists now say that there is no such thing as space or time, just an “infinite field of possibilities”. Sound familiar? Space and time, they now say, are just constructs in the brain to try to make sense of the brain’s perceptions.
- Cognitive scientists have shown that the mental activity representing a ‘decision’ actually occurs after the body has already begun to enact it, so what seems to be a decision is actually an after-the-fact rationalization, the brain taking credit for what has already been ‘decided’.
- Thousands of people from myriad backgrounds throughout history have spoken about ‘oneness’ and the realization (suddenly, or after a lifetime of study) that nothing is actually separate, using remarkably similar language. This would seem a strange consensus to have arisen in a hugely disparate and unconnected group of thoughtful people if it weren’t somehow based in truth.
- Philosophers and scientists are now mostly persuaded that there is no such thing as free will, even if there’s not much consensus on what that means to us, or, if I may be sarcastic for a moment, on what ‘we’ should do about it.
How much evidence do you need? Of course, scientists don’t want to believe any of this — it flies in the face of all of their, and their friends’ and colleagues’, theories and lives’ work — and, like Copernicus, makes them all look like fools for believing what they believed before.
That ‘evidence’, unlike Copernicus’, is completely useless.
Exactly, yes. It suggests that none of our work, none of our theories, nothing that we do, actually matters, or makes a difference. What a revolutionary idea at a time when the apparent global civilization of the human species is entering the final unstoppable stage of collapse, as part of the sixth apparent great extinction of life on earth! What could be more appropriate in that context but to consider the astonishing possibility that it’s all a show, just an appearance, that nothing is really real, and that our self — the thing that underlies all of our anguish and suffering and effort and preoccupies us for our entire apparent ‘lives’ — is actually just an illusion, a dream, something made up by brains too smart for their own good. What a cosmically wonderful way to come to peace with the utter madness of it all, don’t you think?
No, I don’t think. Although perhaps I think too much. Not as much as you do, mind you. I actually prefer to trust my feelings, and none of this makes me feel good. This seems to me a bit denialist — you’re shrugging off what we’ve done to this planet, and to each other, as just “an appearance”, something that’s not real, and hence not worth worrying about. That seems utterly irresponsible, convincing yourself that all the atrocities, all the suffering, violence, destruction, can just be dismissed as unreal and unimportant. I can’t be that indifferent.
Yes, it’s impossible for us ‘selves’ to be indifferent. Our culture and our experience makes us believe we have to do something. But (1) ‘we’ can’t and don’t actually do anything (the character we presume to inhabit appears to do the only thing it can possibly do given its conditioning and the circumstances of each moment), and (2) all this apparent awfulness is actually just a performance, ‘real’ as it seems; it’s like crying over a sad scene in a very good movie — understandable, but also unnecessary and a bit ridiculous. And futile.
Well, you may be right, but I don’t like it.
I don’t like it much either. And I’m stuck here with you.
I can’t believe there is nothing we can do to influence this Dave-character’s beliefs or behaviours.
No, you can’t believe there is nothing we can do. But there is nothing we can do.
Saying that isn’t helpful.
Yes, I know.
And I still can’t buy that all the horrors of this world — genocide and factory farms and clear-cutting and fracking and torture and abuse of every kind — is just an appearance, that it isn’t real. That’s utterly impossible for me to buy.
Yes I know. Me too. I know it’s true, but I can’t ‘buy’ it either. I can’t accept that it’s just our spin on it, our way of looking at it, that makes all those things seem so awful. I can buy the whole no-free-will thing. I can buy that ‘we’ selves aren’t real. I can even buy that there’s no real space or time. As I say, this seems intuitively obvious, and intellectually compelling. But I can’t buy that all this awfulness isn’t really awful. It’s too much. Perhaps that’s why we can’t let go, can’t just dissolve into everything-that-is. It’s like watching a train wreck; we can’t turn away, even though looking solves nothing and makes us feel worse.
OK, suppose we try to look at just one real awful situation objectively, and see if we can really see it as unreal and tolerable from that perspective. So suppose person X is chronically abusing person Y. Our way of coping with this is to acknowledge that person X is sick, possibly because of trauma in their own life. We might even be able to accept that person X has no free will, and so can’t help themselves. So what we do is remove person X from the scene, permanently, so that the abuse cannot continue. We might try to ‘rehabilitate’ (recondition?) person X — or not — but the important thing is to intervene to protect person Y and others from further abuse, not to ‘punish’ person X. But that’s not how radical non-duality would see it. So what would a radical non-duality message about this be?
The message would be that there is no person X or Y, or any ‘thing’, or time in which abuse was really happening, just the appearance, out of nothing, of X seemingly abusing Y. It’s just a movie, metaphorically speaking, pixels on a screen.
But person Y suffers as a result of the abuse, and as a result of our inaction in response to it, no?
Let’s see… I’ll stay in the role of radical non-duality messenger, as best I can. So… It’s person Y’s illusory self that suffers. There is no person Y to actually suffer. The apparent abuse is just an appearance, and the conditioning of the characters makes what we selves would call abuse, inevitably occur whenever it apparently does. The characters are just actors; there is suffering in the ‘movie’, but the actors don’t really suffer. I’m perhaps pushing the metaphor too far, but it seems to work.
That’s very good. I feel less angry and guilty already, and I don’t even know X and Y. But… there’s always going to be a ‘but’, isn’t there? If ‘we’ intervene, person Y’s self, at least, will feel and be better off, no?
Yes, the illusory self of Y will perhaps feel better (it won’t ‘be’ better because it doesn’t exist), and ‘we’ might feel better in a self-righteous way too. But in the first place, this is like helping members in the audience cope with a sad scene in a play — pointless and unnecessary at best. We are after all just audiences taking everything that happens to ‘our’ characters personally. And secondly, when the intervention occurs, when this Dave-character calls Family Services to have X removed from the scene, ‘we’ aren’t actually doing anything. The Dave-character will have done the only thing it could have apparently done in the circumstances given its conditioning (aren’t you proud of it!). Our claim that ‘we’ initiated it is just a kind of personification. The character can’t hear us, because we’re just ghosts, we’re illusions in its brain. So if there’s an intervention, ‘we’ had nothing to do with it, so all of our thinking and feeling and presuming to act is just ‘wishful’, just imagining, just taking credit for something we actually had no part of. Like a prayer. We might just as well pray that the characters in the play we’re watching don’t do something that will cause stressful emotions to audience members. Actually a bit silly, from that perspective.
Hmmm. I like the play/movie/audience metaphor, and the ghost metaphor. It helps me appreciate the situation better. But it’s still a huge mental leap. Unless I continually pull my self back into seeing everything through that metaphorical lens, I can’t help my self feeling angry, sad, fearful, shameful etc and thinking it’s wrong not to do something. We selves are like dogs watching a play from the stands and barking because we don’t understand that it’s just a play and the violence and unfairness on stage isn’t real. But… it isn’t just a play, is it? It seems so damned real!
Yes, to selves, unfortunately — to us ghosts conjured up to create a representation of reality in the brain for ‘our’ creatures’ evolutionary advantage — it is the only reality we have to work with. Tragically, that representation has expanded to include a recursive, separate self — us — that is trapped for the apparent life of the character’s brain in this illusory, helpless ghost-world, thinking it is real and should be doing something, and that what it does makes a difference. It’s a truly Shakespearean tragedy. The play’s the thing!
Alas and alack. And arf! And ah-wooooh!